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Opinion | Someone, please, fix our gambling problems

For purely political reasons, we have the dumbest gambling laws in America, costing us billions and punishing our poorest citizens.

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Did you know that, according to the Alabama Constitution, selling alcoholic beverages in the state of Alabama is illegal? 

Obviously, there’s a bit of nuance involved, but generally speaking, unless the citizens of a town or county in this state vote in favor of a constitutional amendment allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages in their specific town or county, such sales are prohibited. 

And yet, from the bottom of this state to the top of this state, alcohol sales happen every single day. Because voters in various counties and towns went to the polls, understood the issue and voted to approve alcohol sales. 

And in almost every instance, there are today new-to-the-market liquors and beers, and various other alcoholic beverages, being sold in those counties that the voters weren’t aware of at the time of their votes. No one was putting alcohol in seltzer back in the 1980s – because we had taste back then – but today, you can’t walk three steps in a convenience store without tripping over a package of White Claw. And somehow, everyone is OK with that.

Since you’re probably wondering, I’m going through all of this because it’s probably the easiest way to understand the lunacy of our Alabama gambling laws, and the partisan manner in which the Alabama Supreme Court made up law to appease a former governor and to really, really screw the rest of us. 

The ALSC was at it again last week, declaring in an opinion on Friday that a dog track and electronic bingo facility in Shorter, VictoryLand, is a “public nuisance,” because it is operating electronic bingo machines – the same machines being played daily at Poarch Creek casinos and at similarly legal casinos all over the country. 

The ALSC ordered a lower court to issue a ruling within 30 days ordering that VictoryLand cease operations. 

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Such an act would, in addition to putting dozens of employees out of work, also disenfranchise tens of thousands of Macon County voters, who followed the law – just like we all did when approving those liquor sales in each county – and voted to approve “Las Vegas-style games” and electronic bingo. 

That’s what a lot of people miss in all of this arguing over gambling – that the people of Macon County, Lowndes County and Greene County followed the laws of this state, passed constitutional amendments and approved of the exact style of gambling that the ALSC is trying to say is illegal. 

They followed the exact same process that we use for all constitutional amendments, including the one required to sell liquor in each county. 

Only, after those bingo amendments were passed, the ALSC came over the top and issued an opinion in which it redefined what “bingo” is. That definition is wholly different than the one utilized by the federal government and every other state in America. Essentially, it limits bingo to only the form played originally and deems it impossible that the game could be played electronically. 

To put it in perspective, it would be like the court determining now that the only legal liquor sales should be the handful of options available in 1933 when the country rolled back its blanket prohibition.  

That would be idiotic, right? 

So, why are we doing exactly that with gambling? The voters in Macon, Lowndes and Greene approved the electronic bingo games. You can go back and check the legislative record, the public debates and the various printed materials at the time – all items a (fair) court would use to determine legislative and voter intent. It’s very clear that the votes, which mostly occurred in 2003 or later, were about the approval of electronic games. 

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Now, I’m not going to get into the various political reasons that certain people decided to go after gambling establishments in this state. Or why some of those people focused so intently on one specific dog track. Or why in the Mississippi it was all so weird and personal. (At least, I’m not going to go into it in this column.) 

But I will point out that it has cost us hundreds of billions in lost tax revenue, allowed unregulated gambling to flourish, led to an untaxed monopoly for this state’s only federally recognized Native American tribe and generally made us look like bumbling imbeciles as every other state figured this all out rather easily. 

It is absurd what we’re doing, and that our state leadership, starting in Gov. Kay Ivey’s office, continues to allow this charade to carry on. 

We are on the verge of shutting down two viable, legally operating businesses in Macon and Lowndes counties, because the ALSC arbitrarily decided that the bingo games being played in Poarch Creek casinos are illegal outside of Poarch Creek casinos. This is despite the fact that a constitutional amendment, and the local law enforcement that amendment places in charge of oversight, has deemed those machines legal. 

(Want me to explode your brain? In one instance, after a raid several years ago at a non-Native American casino in Alabama, machines deemed illegal at that casino were transported to a Poarch Creek facility, where they were used legally.)

While that’s happening, a business in Greene County has already closed, unable to pay a tax rate of more than 100 percent. A tax rate concocted by a guy who was also appointed by that same former governor. 

These are three of the largest employers in three of the poorest counties in our state. Three counties with extremely high numbers of African Americans. 

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And all the while, there is a proposal that brings these entities, the Poarch Creeks and the state all on the same page, adequately regulates gaming, establishes a lottery and produces about a billion dollars per year in revenue. 

Yet, somehow, our current status quo, this pool of muck and dumb, is more appealing to Ivey and the legislature.  

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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